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The Ultimate Student Guide to Navigating the Writing MOOC

So you are not a confident writer, but you want to take a MOOC that includes several papers. Can you survive? Or maybe you have college plans but writing is your biggest weakness. Can a writing MOOC help?

Navigating the Writing MOOC

Josef Stuefer via Flickr

As someone who has taught writing at the college level for more than 20 years, I have been asking myself similar questions. I have taught, and enjoyed teaching, hybrid courses. I routinely provide feedback electronically. But I was curious about whether writing can be scaled up to the MOOC level. So over the last few months, I registered for several courses in which writing is a major component, and I think I can say the answer to both questions is “Yes.” But a very qualified “Yes.”

Pedagogically, writing instruction and assessment in MOOCs is not as advanced as the technology. The medium doesn’t yet allow for many best practices from writing classes to transfer. While many instructors have recorded excellent lectures about a variety of topics, writing is not something you can just learn by watching lecture.

The core pedagogy of most college courses is that writing is a “process.” Papers are done in multiple drafts with each draft assessed and given feedback. The student then uses that feedback to revise and craft a more effective paper. Most MOOCs also assign papers in drafts, but this is where the similarity ends. The logistics of a massive online class are simply not conducive to an effective feedback process. It is clear instructors are trying to address this issues; some innovative methods have been developed to facilitate process-based writing. Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go.

So the “Yes” is qualified. You can get a lot of out of one of these writing MOOCs. Just go in with your eyes open; be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the model. Most importantly, be very proactive.

Writing MOOCs vs. MOOCs that require writing

For the purposes of this article, I want to differentiate between writing classes and writing-intensive classes. The former are classes about writing. In that case, students study writing and write in order to become better writers. The latter are classes in which writing is a means to explore other content. In that case, students are asked to write papers about this content. Writing classes teach you how to write better; writing-intensive classes presume you know how to write.

If you are a less experienced writer, and plan to take MOOCs for credit, consider taking a writing class first. In many courses, written papers are much, if not all, of the grade. If you don’t have the necessary writing skills, this will make successful completion more difficult.

A composition MOOC can be an excellent guide. These classes cover the same material as traditional college writing classes and provide a good introduction to both collegiate standards and expectations.

Keep in mind, however, that there are different levels of writing classes. More importantly, while traditional colleges assess and place students in classes that matches their skill levels, with MOOCs, you have to self-place. Accurate self-placement can make a huge difference in what you get out of a course.

Choosing the right writing MOOC

Writing classes generally fall into one of the three following main categories, while writing-intensive classes will assume you have some mastery of all of the following:

  • Basic Writing – This is often a non-credit class in college settings. It focuses on the nuts-and-bolts of writing, with much of the work helping students to improve at the sentence and paragraph level. One recent example of this type of class being offered on Coursera is Crafting an Effective Writer: Tools of the Trades, given by Mt. San Jancinto College. This is a short, five-week course, with assignments generally no longer than a paragraph.
  • College Writing 1 – These resemble the traditional writing classes that most college students take in their first semester. They presume a student has the writing ability covered in Basic Writing. The primary focus of feedback in this type of class is on structure and argument quality. These are not grammar classes. A couple examples of this on Coursera include English Composition 1: Achieving Expertise from Duke and First Year Composition 2.0 from the Georgia Institute of Technology. These classes also include a component on visual literacy.
  • College Writing 2 – There is some variety in the types of classes taught under this label. Different schools emphasize different skills to develop. However, more often than not the class will focus on research and on ensuring that students can support a claim with information from outside sources. Writing II: Rhetorical Composing from Ohio State on Coursera is one such example of this type of class. Sometimes a more advanced composition class will focus on a particular kind of writing, such as Writing In the Sciences.


[pullquote position=”right”]The most important thing to remember about self-placement is to be honest with yourself about your abilities. Don’t place yourself too high because you want to skip right to the class you want to take. [/pullquote]Similarly, don’t place yourself too low and end up bored by material you don’t need.

One important side note: if you do take one of these courses and have additional college plans, make sure you hold on to everything you write. Currently schools generally do not accept MOOCs for transfer credit (partially for the reasons I discuss in this essay). However, many schools are moving toward skill-based assessment. If you can provide evidence that you possess the necessary writing skills, even if you can’t get college credit for the course, you may get a requirement waived or receive a more advanced placement. Get into the habit of keeping a portfolio of all of your work.

Peer review in a writing MOOC

This brings us to the larger pedagogical issue – one that affects both writing classes and writing-intensive classes – that of the feedback itself.

In most traditional writing or writing-intensive classes, instructors provide the feedback or perhaps split the responsibility with other students. As a student, you have the opportunity to hear how your work is received by your peers and by a professional who has had training in the discipline. Just as importantly, the feedback is consistent. The same people see all drafts of your paper. They know what they recommended on the previous draft, so they can read any additional draft in context. The feedback you receive is generally the most important part of the class.

In the MOOC world, due to the huge number of students in a class, the only feedback you can expect to get is from peers. There is simply no way for instructors to personally respond to each and every paper. Even more problematic, due to logistics, there is no consistency to who is providing the feedback. The second group of readers will likely be different from readers of the first draft, and they will probably not see the earlier comments.

Even more interesting: peer reviews can factor into grades in a MOOC – in some cases significantly. (In one advanced class I took, peer-reviewed papers were the entire grade.) I was somewhat bemused to discover I could “fail” a fellow student’s paper and this would count toward their grade. (The grade for a paper is the average of scores from all reviewers.) While I have training and experience in the discipline, most students in these classes do not.

MOOC peer review

Gideon Burton via Flickr

Put bluntly: MOOCs are essentially crowd sourcing grading responsibility to students who have not yet proven mastery, or even understanding, of the material! At best this is problematic. Crowd sourcing offers intriguing possibilities in a MOOC context (as John Duhring discusses in “Extracurriculars: Do Massive Courses Make Digital Sharecropping More Efficient?”) However, the communal creation of knowledge, where the more people you have, the more knowledge you potentially have, is very different than this communal grading process.

While crowd sourcing is taking place at a macro level – thousands of students are indeed grading thousands of essays – at the micro level, each individual essay gets 2-4 peer reviews, with no guarantee that any of the reviews will be of quality. While I use peer reviews in every class I teach, I monitor peer feedback, on top of providing extensive feedback myself. No such quality control exists in MOOCs.

An unpleasant example

As a case study, let me take you through an experience I had in Composition 1: Achieving Expertise from Duke University.

The initial assignment was to write a critical evaluation of a published article. We had to critique some aspect of the piece and support our claim with cited material from the essay. My first draft was well-received by my three critics. (Probably better than it should have been.) However, except for recommending that I provide a bit more summary material to help the reader understand the article, they provided no real direction. One even said my paper was “perfect.” (It was not!) I revised as much as I could despite the lack of guidance.

That second draft was then ripped apart by an entirely different reviewer who didn’t see the previous feedback and who gave it a very low score. While I think his or her comments were well intentioned, I was surprised to learn that despite teaching in higher education for 20 years I a) don’t know what a critique is and b) don’t understand citation. While there were a couple of good critical observations that I wished I had received for my first draft, the overall feedback was generally misguided; my critic railed at me for not understanding the assignment, when it was clear that he or she is the one who didn’t have the understanding.

[pullquote position=”right”]As a writing instructor, I was somewhat horrified by this entire situation. I was already disappointed that I had provided several students extensive feedback on their first drafts, then couldn’t find out if they used any of it. [/pullquote](The problem here is that if only 5-10% of all students complete a class, it is nearly impossible to maintain any consistency. For all I know the students I reviewed all dropped the class.) Then I was asked to score a new set of papers, but I had no idea what sort of feedback these students had already received. Taking all these things together, I elected to stop participating in the class. It left a bad taste in my mouth.

Having reviewed discussion forums in several classes, I know I am not the only one who has had an experience like this. Complaints about scores from peers is common in MOOC discussion forums. Granted, it is impossible to know how many of these complaints are the student being defensive and how many are cases where another student actually provided poor feedback.

In addition to disappointment with the scores, in the several classes I looked at, students also complained about receiving little, or no, feedback. It was not clear whether the critics simply didn’t know how to provide effective feedback, didn’t recognize that they should or simply didn’t care. Regardless, inconsistent or non-existent feedback clearly affected the learning of many students in these classes. (This is another reason to take a writing class first. You learn to provide effective feedback on papers in these courses.)

How to benefit from a writing MOOC

So if you are planning to take a MOOC that involves writing, be aware that this is the world in which you will be working. Also be aware – these problems are not deal killers. There are ways to at least partially compensate for the issues. Learning is still very much possible; it just requires some extra effort on your part.

A few strategies to consider:

  • Join a small group meet-up, either in person or online. In the first weeks of the classes, people post on the forums looking for other local people willing to meet live and discuss their work. If you live in an area that has a sufficient concentration of students to do this, TAKE ADVANTAGE OF IT. First of all, the investment someone makes in a group probably ensures they are serious and are more likely to provide solid feedback. Second, they will see all drafts you write so will know what feedback you have been working with and what changes you have made. Their comments will be in context. Third, having a live group discussion often brings out observations people don’t see on their own, and they reinforce the most helpful comments. Fourth, they can offer a reality check if you happen to get a really destructive peer review. If you can’t join a physical meet up, check the forums for virtual groups.
  • If you join a group, live or virtual, BE COMMITTED. It is easy to slack off in a MOOC because you are not paying for it. But for a group to work, all participants need to maintain their level of commitment. You might have the best of intentions, but if you drop out, you are affecting not only yourself but others in the group.
  • If you chose not to join a group, use the discussion forums. Post drafts of your essays, ideally before you hand them in, and see what people have to say. While this can be equally hit-and-miss, you may connect with a couple people whose feedback you trust. Cultivate those connections. And return the favor! Don’t be selfish and ask others to evaluate your work while you are unwilling to look at their.
  • Even if you are an inexperienced writer, have confidence in your ability to provide feedback. Yes, you might not be able to diagnose technical issues in a formal essay, but you can give valuable feedback with comments as simple as, “I was very confused by your essay. I didn’t understand the second paragraph.” And don’t assume your lack of understanding is your fault. It is up to the writer to make his or her ideas clear.
  • Many classes now have video “hangouts” on Google or YouTube where instructors and teaching assistants answer questions or lead workshops using actual student papers. This is a rare exception to the rule that students in MOOCs don’t get feedback from the professor, so when they ask for volunteers to participate in these activities, volunteer! While it may be intimidating to have your paper critiqued in front of your fellow students, the experience can be invaluable. The real problem here: only a handful of students can actually be picked out of the hundreds who may volunteer. So while instructors are trying to come up with ways to reach out, the scale of the classes continues to prove problematic.

The quality the qualified “yes” depends on

Reading the discussion forums, it is clear to me a LOT of students are getting a LOT out of these classes. But in almost all cases, they are doing more than just completing assignments. They are taking the initiative, utilizing support systems inside the class and creating additional ones outside it. In fact, recent research backs up this observation. Check out “Effective Habits of Power Users” to learn more about how successful MOOC students proactively use the discussion forums and engage with their peers.

That may be the most important thing to recognize here. Yes, you can benefit from a writing MOOC. But like in any class, success is ultimately up to you. After all, the instructor can’t make make you a good writer. Only you can.


Joshua White (1 Posts)

Joshua White is a college administrator who has taught college writing and research for more than 20 years. He has worked with both bachelor and master students as well as with both developmental and advanced writers. Having spent more than 15 years at the Boston Architectural College, he has developed a strong interest in how visual thinkers learn and has developed a variety of visual techniques for the writing classroom. He has also taught some hybird and flipped courses, so has developed a healthy interest in online education. In the recent past he has been the Director of a Learning Center, an academic advisor, a playwright, and an improvisational actor. In the much more distant past, he worked in a bank -- and didn't really like it.


  1. It is very interesting to read these comments from a professional in the field. Your observations closely match my own, less expert appreciation. Although I am a High School teacher, my field isn’t English (although, things being what they are in schools, that hasn’t stopped me teaching the subject) and I’ve never had any formal instruction in academic writing. I too started and abandoned the Duke Comp I course although for slightly different reasons.

    I experienced very similar issues with feedback – basically it was either wrong, superficial (Great job!) or missing. Nevertheless, I continued on into the second assignment and, as I expected, the work was a lot better as those without an appropriate background dropped away. Feedback was still poor or absent. While there were some useful comments, if I had not already been a fairly confident writer I would not have had any basis on which to separate these from the suggestions which were wrong or misguided.

    The primary reason I chose to leave the course was not the lack of feedback but the low expectations demonstrated not only by my peers but by the instructor. I had frequently posted to comment about the importance of honouring the word count, having an appropriate structure, writing clearly and so on. I was consistently attacked as being ‘elitist’ as it was unreasonable (on a course advertised as being set at the level of a freshman college student) to expect correct grammar or any understanding of how to write an essay. When the instructor belatedly posted an exemplar of an ‘outstanding’ essay I decided it was time to quit. I would have rated the chosen essay as a bare pass; it had a number of grammatical errors, a poor structure and no clear argumentation.

    Unsurprisingly my efforts were all marked as outstanding, even though I would have rated them as no better than a fair pass. Having watched nearly half the course lectures and reviewed the overall syllabus I have to conclude that course is almost entirely content-free. Any improvements in writing would have happened almost despite participation in the course.

    Peer evaluation can be quite accurate en masse, although my experience over a number of courses would suggest it tends to be over-generous. What it really cannot do is provide useful feedback on an individual level. Ironically, the most effective English Composition course I’ve found so far is one with no feedback at all; the Saylor course leaves it up to the individual to assess their own work or (if they have any sense) to post on the forums and get feedback. What that course has that Duke’s didn’t is lots of useful guidance on the process of writing. Now if only I could find a writing course which had decent content and feedback – but maybe I’d need to actually pay for that.

    If anyone is wondering why I don’t ask my colleagues in the English faculty to help me out they are obviously not familiar with school politics. One can’t reveal any weaknesses…

    • Hi Paul,

      I hear you on the politics 🙂

      An aspect of feedback that I didn’t mention in the article concerns the matrices provided to students to score writing. A weak or vague grading matrix can magnify the problems I discuss.

      For instance, I took the Wesleyan class the Modern and the Postmodern. (Good class. Quite enjoyed it.) It had weekly papers so a lot of time was spent reviewing other student work. However, it had a rather skeletal matrix for evaluating writing. One of the scoring categories concerned use of outside sources (quoting, paraphrasing). The scoring was done on a 3-point basis. A “3” meant that a student used quoted material, integrated it effectively, and connected it clearly to the argument being made. A “2” meant there was quoted material but it didn’t support the argument as clearly. A “1” meant there was no quoted material at all.

      This is problematic in two ways. The first is the direct reference to “quoted material.” As a writer and writing teacher, I tend to de-emphasize quoting and focus on paraphrasing instead. (Overuse of quotes is one of the biggest issues we face in first-year college writing classes.) I could have written an entire paper based on another source – paraphrasing it all – and most likely some students would have given me a zero for it. So I made sure I “threw in” some quotes – just to be safe – even though the material was not especially quotable. On the flip side, I read some papers that used outside sources abysmally. They just listed quotes that were unconnected to the flow and content of the paper. However, if I followed the matrix faithfully, I had to give these a “1”, because at least they had a quote.

      Some students clearly were grading “quantitatively” rather than “qualitatively”. They were counting quotes rather than carefully examining how they were used. Without intending, this system actually encourages bad writing habits.

      One simple way to address this is to create a more detailed scoring matrix. If you grade on basis of 6 rather than 3, you can be more nuanced. But you have to hope the students are critical enough to pick up on these nuances. (And I have seen writing professionals argue for hours about the difference between a “3” and a “4” paper. This is not easy stuff.)

  2. hi Joshua, I really enjoyed reading your article, and I enjoyed your mindset of wanting to “check out” how the writing process scaled up to MOOCs. Two thoughts came to mind when reading your article: first, do you have any experience or an opinion on these new “automatic grading” softwares that EdX are talking about? Second, do you see potential for MOOCs that maybe target graduate students to help them with writing their dissertations? Are there any out there already? I ask this because I assume grad students might have some experience writing and thus be able to provide better feedback on peer review. Incidentally, what were the age ranges of students in the MOOC you participated in?

    • hi,

      Thanks for the kind words.

      I have read about these grading programs but have never seen one in action. They are definitely a major part of this conversation. I considered mentioning them in the article, but decided to limit content to what I was experiencing.

      I want to keep an open mind, but color me skeptical.

      In response to your other comments questions:
      * In terms of age, I saw posts from up and down the spectrum – pre-teens to retired. I don’t know the age of those who responded to my writing. I actually found the youth and inexperience of some students problematic. One of the writing assignments for the Duke class concerned professional interests. A student posted on the board asking what that meant – and mentioned he/she was 12 years old! This student didn’t yet have the life experience to place the assignment in context. While I think it is great that he/she was attempting a college class, I am not sure I want a 12 year old reviewing my work.
      * Taking the above into consideration, I could see a MOOC becoming a useful tool for graduate students – however, access would have to limited to that population. That would means open access is out. The registration would have to be done through contracting schools. And even then, feedback would be hit-and-miss.
      * Along these same lines, I actually see MOOCs that teach writing as less stand-alone classes and more complementary pieces to a given school’s writing courses. MOOC lectures are often outstanding. I can easily see a MOOC and its associative videos serving as a visual/interactive text book for a flipped course. I have considered recording a lot of these same videos for my own classes. It would be a nice time-saver to tap into an existing resource. This may well be the direction Coursera is going right now with its recent agreements with state schools.